The Tax Hike That Wasn't 

We  have just been scolded by former Commercial Appeal public-affairs reporter Jimmie Covington, who, in a year-end blog piece for Smart City, upbraided us and the rest of the local media for reporting throughout most of 2011 on a nonexistent city tax hike that was supposedly adopted by the Memphis City Council on June 21st. Respecting Covington's known reputation as a local-government maven, we sat up and took heed. In the meantime, though, in our own retrospective editorial in the last issue we published in 2011, we had included this sentence: "And taxpayers grumble that the city has dared to be profligate with their money when it has just raised their property taxes."

Days later, we received a communication from our former Flyer colleague Mary Cashiola, who now handles media and communications matters for Mayor A C Wharton. She, too, offered a helpful correction: "Meant to clarify something with you after reading the resolution editorial ... while the council voted on a one-time 18-cent tax for school funding, that money has never actually been levied. The point you made is still the same, but wanted to make sure you knew that taxpayers' bills are actually a little bit less this year than last. From what I hear, there has even been some talk of rescinding it."

Well, we are not diehards here, condemned to ride on in a sinking ship. Upon doing a little investigation of our own, we can confirm that it does indeed appear that no tax increase was reflected in the tax bills subsequently sent out to property owners during 2011. On June 21st, during its deliberations on closing out the city budget package, the city council did approve a resolution to reinstate an 18-cent amount that had been cut from the tax rate in 2008. The stated purpose of that resolution was to create a reserve or ready fund to account for obligations to Memphis City Schools.

But in fact, as Covington notes, "certified and signed documents ... reflect that no tax increase was adopted and that this year's rate is $3.1889, which is a smidgen lower than last year's $3.1957." He goes on: "The tax rate ordinance with the $3.1889 rate was signed on July 5th by Bill Morrison as council chairman and on July 7th by Mayor A C Wharton. The document was certified by the city comptroller." And there is more in that vein, including the acknowledgement that "[a]n 18-cent rate increase could still be put in place by the council." That increase would require a specific ad hoc meeting by the council, however.

So what we got here is not only a failure to communicate, it's a baffling one. Why would the council and the administration not tout what amounts to a rescission of a publicly professed intent to raise city taxes? Other questions: Are we to assume that there never was a problem in taking care of the school debt despite all the emergency rhetoric at the time? And do the aggrieved city employees, whose pay and benefits were cut, have questions to raise about the reality of the "shared sacrifice" they were told was incumbent on everyone?

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